The opening strains of Cowboy Johnson's tribute to Houston's songwriting favorite son Mickey Newbury instantly conjure the remarkable resurrection of Jerry Lee Lewis. After his fall from rock and roll grace, the Killer reinvented himself as a country singer in 1968, and his exquisite 1970 interpretation of Newbury's "She Even Woke Me Up to Say Goodbye" continued an amazing string of Lewis hits that became legendary hard-core honky-tonk classics and marked Lewis as a singular country stylist.
Wimberley's Johnson, working with Austinite Chris Gage, pays homage to the master songsmith with a 12-track sampling from the songbook of the prolific Newbury. Some of the selections, like "Sweet Memories," "How I Love Them Old Songs" and "Why You Been Gone So Long," are instantly recognizable by connoisseurs of country music, but Johnson also has wisely chosen some of Newbury's most worthy obscurities like "Wish I Was," "Lead On" and "You've Always Got the Blues."
Johnson's mellow voice recalls Mickey Gilley before he became a Vegas pop singer, and Gage's minimalist arrangements put the spotlight squarely where it belongs: on Newbury's incomparable lyrics. Locals should get a kick out of Johnson's revival of "If You Ever Get to Houston (Look Me Down)," another stone-cold honky-tonk classic, and one that Don Gibson made famous as the title track to his 1977 album. While Newbury could be uplifting when he wanted to, his true brilliance was in gritty details and down-and-out characterizations of men often one step from divorce or the Salvation Army. In "Mobile Blue," Newbury paints an accurate picture of an archetypal Houstonian who "headed south to work the pipeline" and wound up losing his woman. It doesn't get any more down-Houston-home than this: "somebody musta told her that I trifled and I lied / they saw me drunk in Mobile with some wired-up chick from Jacksonville / and, brother, did we look like we could fly."
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Newbury remains the only songwriter to ever have songs in four separate charts at once (country, R&B, easy listening and pop/rock), and Cowboy Johnson's Grain of Sand ably demonstrates all the traits that make Newbury's work so diverse and universal.